Monday, December 29, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Book cover The Martian is a short and easy to read book about a guy being abandoned on Mars by mistake. Andy Weir writes most of the book as the astronaut's log entries, but in a colloquial and funny way. I started reading the book since there are a lot of people that praised it and there is also a Ridley Scott movie being made from the book. I hope it won't suck (*cough*Interstellar*cough*).

What I found really appealing is not only the subject matter and all the science and engineering involved, but also the positive attitude of the main character in the face of adversity. All that science and engineering was cool too, though :) and presented in an easy to digest way (there are no equations anywhere :-P). After a while it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief since there are accidents after accidents and Mars really is being painted as the bad guy, trying to kill the protagonist, yet he always finds a way out of the problem at hand. I mean, if they make the movie follow the book, they need Matt Damon in it just because he has all that Bourne training and he needs it to survive the set. Yet one cannot help rooting for Mark Watney, anyway. There are some politics involved as well, but not that much; basically NASA is presented as an organization of scientists that want to get the job done, even if some are more cautious than others.

In summary, I think this is a book that any space geek should read. I finished it in two days, so it's not really a waste of anyone's time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

book cover Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, all!

I thought I would write this post as a Christmas present and let you know about this very cool book. I've read the Harry Potter books and so I could appreciate this book more, as it is fan fiction, however it can be read separately; my recommendation, though, is to know at least something (like having watched the movies) about the Harry Potter universe.

That being said, imagine that Harry Potter would have been a slightly different person, a combination between Sherlock Holmes and Richard Feynman, maybe. Highly intelligent, having read a lot of really serious books and having understood and integrated them into his own philosophy, this Harry Potter goes to the Hogwarts school of magic for two reasons: to apply the scientific method to magic and, having discovered its mysteries, take over the world and stave off death. Imagine what such a character would do with the stern and moralizing lectures of Dark Ages tutors and you can see why this book is really really funny. But don't take it all as a satire. The references, both serious and in jest, are real. The teachings and methods applied are real. All in all, from every book about children and young adult heroes that I've read so far, this one presents the best role model yet! And I include Ender's Game here (which is also referenced in the book when Harry's adoptive father is comparing the two - hillarious).

I would have to say that I've finished the book, but I didn't actually do that. And that is because the book is not something put on paper and sold by a publisher, instead it is an ongoing story that is offered freely on a blog-like site. Yes, you can read it online. And I have read all that was written yet and, if you consider the parallel universe of the original Harry Potter books, we are about a book and a half in.
Update: I have actually finished the book. :( The writer actually finished writing it after 122 chapters. The ending was pretty cool, too, but I really wanted more. She writes "This is the end of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I will write no sequel myself; I have said what I set out to say, and it is done. You have my enthusiastic consent to write within this universe yourself, if you wish.".

So, the bottom line is that I love this book, even if a little inconsistent in the sense that the style and the ideas do not keep the same sort of rhythm throughout. You can read it at its completely free site: HPMOR. Its author, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky is a scholar of human rationality and artificial intelligence. I don't know much about her, but let me tell you that, after reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I am eager to familiarize myself with her work. I highly recommend this epic undertaking, which probably started as a satire, until its characters gained enough consistency to define their own solid and inspiring story.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A technically free Internet

Right now there is a battle raging on that few of us are aware of. It is for one thing only, and that is control over the Internet, control over communications between people, whether it is a discussion about a two tiered Internet, one free and one paid, or a ban instituted by a government or another on sites that are considered bad for you. It started as it usually does, with governments and corporations trying to get as much of the pie as possible. Only something was different: the Internet is so basic, so flexible, that the companies regulating its use and owning the hardware it runs on cannot control its flow or its direction. And as great strides have been made by intelligence and commercial entities alike to control the content and to track the use, equally great strides have been made by individuals to conceal the use and escape monitoring and censorship. The biggest and most touted mechanism that allows anonymity on the Internet is called TOR, The Onion Router, and its concept is simple: encrypt all communications and randomly route requests through the TOR nodes so that the origin of the access is next to impossible to find. There are other, less known methods of doing this, but TOR is the most used and the most known. It is mostly used as a proxy to anonymize normal Internet access, though, and very few people are actually using TOR to access TOR services only.

I am here to tell you that, first, TOR is not enough and, second, that no other software will ever be enough for this kind of use. You see, the TOR nodes I was talking about are people using TOR on their computers and allowing other people to access the "normal" Internet through them. A lot of the TOR exit nodes that are the border of the anonymous TOR world and the transparent Internet, are actually heavily monitored by everyone interested, if not actually ran by them from the beginning. Like in an old example where the FBI was running an IP anonymizing proxy, those exit points are the weak spot of the TOR network. Another flaw is the fact that it works as a proxy for normal IP protocols. Some software (Bittorrent, for example) is openly sending the originating IP in their data, so it doesn't matter if you go through TOR to download stuff, your IP is still there for the world to see. Since you cannot trust all software than runs on your computer, you cannot completely trust using TOR as a proxy for anonymous Internet access.

The solution, I believe, is to implement the anonymizing and encryption features in the Internet itself. Make it so that there is no address for any of its users, or if it is, it is something temporary that you assigned for a connection or another and can be easily recreated and changed. Do it in such a manner that no one will be able to control the DNS servers and the naming schemes, so that you can call your web site whatever you want and not have to pay for it and be able to host it without broadcasting to the world where you are. The problems in implementing this are major, but not insurmountable. One of them is that encryption and complicated routing are significantly decreasing access time. However, given the speed of Internet today, that is not really a big problem anymore.

My thesis is that if freedom of speech, true freedom of speech, is implemented in a technical way, unbiased by any other rule than that you are free to communicate without fear, then no amount of intimidation will be able to break it. As always when human politics have encroached in the territory of personal freedom, the only solution is usually technical, at least since Gutenberg made his printing press and probably way before that.

I am myself not skilled enough to think of all the aspects of such a new protocol for the Internet. Also I am pretty sure that opposition will be huge against any attempt to do it. But what about if we, technical people, get together and make this work? Borrowing parts from the enormously successful TOR, Bittorrent, Bitcoin, we can architect freedom rather than just talk about it in the context of some war or another. Think about it the next time when, in your free country, you get arrested for saying what you believe in or sharing what you know or trying to access a site and finding that it is not there anymore, not for you at least.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Good and bad political TV shows

Last year there were three very good US political shows: Homeland, of course, then The Americans, which presents two KBG agents pretending to be US citizens as the main protagonists, as well as The Assets, which was not that good, but was about Aldrich Ames, the infamous American CIA agent who sold secrets to the Russians. All of these shows were presenting various intelligence services doing their best, and in good conscience, to further the interests of their countries. Motivated people, some you might love, some you might hate, but all doing things for the right reasons. Unfortunately, this year seems to be plagued by disgustingly propagandistic shows like Madam Secretary and State of Affairs, bent on showing the US as the spotless white knights and their enemies as faceless evil villains.

Both seemingly wanting to put forward strong female characters with real power and responsibility, they do it in a sledgehammer way that makes me want to cringe. Madam Secretary is about an ex-CIA, now political university intellectual, woman who gets to become the US Foreign Secretary after an unforeseen accident to the real secretary. Interpreted by the beautiful Téa Leoni, it presents the entire US administration as a bunch of do-gooders, plagued by the moral consequences of using their power and having to often sidestep their conscience in order to save the world from the boogie man. Not only a powerful woman at work, she is also a mother, having to take care of her daughter and solve family problems together with her teacher husband. The entire image portrayed by the series is so artificial that you actually see all the pink dripping from where it was forcefully painted over all the black bits.

State of Affairs just started. The lead of the series is Grey's Anatomy star Katherine Heigl, also a CIA woman with a direct professional and personal connection with the US president, who is a black woman. Her fiance was killed right in front of her by terrorists. He was none other than the president's son. In the first three episodes she has to make decisions to thwart the efforts of: Arab terrorists abducting American doctors and threatening them with decapitation, Russian submarines that steal American secrets by tapping undersea fiber optics and Boko Haram terrorists kidnapping school girls. Meanwhile she is being torn by the fact that the guy who killed her fiance was a former asset of hers. She doesn't tell the president because... she would break her oaths to the CIA. The show has some darkness in it, but it also artificial, as some hidden entity has some proof that would incriminate her and a shady character who might be good or bad or both is circling like a vulture. Soon enough we'll discover her father is somehow involved and her fiance is not dead and he is actually her brother or something.

To their benefit, after exhausting the original material, Homeland is not necessarily worst. Also there is another show which I cannot yet say if I like or not, called The Honourable Woman. Great cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stephen Rea (who is not a werewolf in this one... yet :D ) and others. It is an US/UK coproduction, really atmospheric, really dark, but also a bit slow and obtuse. I may have had my brain affected by the previous shows so I can't yet appreciate the value of this one. It seems to mix real politics with some really heavy stuff like assassinations, the economic battlefront between Israel and Palestine, arms smuggling, etc.

The reason why I wrote this post is because sometimes I feel like the media shows are following too closely the politics of the moment, so close in fact that many a time they seem to be slightly ahead of it. The bad guys are entities that are not yet enemies of the US or that behave in worst ways than their real life counterparts, the people in charge often have to bend the rules in order to remain the good guys, even if officially in reality those people have not (yet) bent those rules, etc. Unlike war movies that try to erase or at least erode the moral debt of nations and people involved in past wars, I feel now there are films and series that inject the apology before the act has even been committed. In a period when the US intelligence apparatus is being attacked from all sides by news reports of their activities, here they are, all these stories about the good ole CIA, ran by intellectual and beautiful women of power who maintain their morality like the good mothers of the nation that they are. Am I paranoid here?